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For the Defense : The Randy Kraft Murder Trial, Unusually Long and Complicated, Is Taking Its Tollon 2 Attorneys, Both in Court and Out

Times Staff Writer

When C. Thomas McDonald agreed to help defend Randy Steven Kraft, the attorney was prepared for an ordeal. But the enormity of it all escaped him at the time. “I thought it might take 2 years out of my life at most.”

It may end up more like 5.

Since 1984, McDonald and his colleague James G. Merwin have represented Kraft, who is charged with the murders of 16 young men in Orange County. On and off since last fall, newspapers and television have carried accounts of the trial, the delays and testimony about the grisly details of murder and sexual mutilation.

For the attorneys defending Kraft, the trial can be measured in personal terms as well. They have endured public criticism for their defense, notably the delays in the case and the cost to the public. And it has also touched their lives, their families, their reputations.

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The two lawyers for Kraft have a common bond besides a long friendship. They both believe that nothing should be spared--personally or professionally--in their efforts to give Kraft the best defense possible.

McDonald, 47, said that when it’s finally over, he will have to rebuild his home life. Merwin, 45, went through a divorce during preparations for the trial, although he primarily blames other reasons besides the Kraft case.

Throughout his time working on the Kraft case, Merwin said, one thought keeps him going: “If anyone ever needed help, it’s Randy.” Not because there is so much evidence against him, Merwin insists, but simply because he has to face so many charges.

‘Randy Deserves the Best’

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And McDonald feels just as strongly. “A hundred times I’ve regretted I took this case,” he said. “But my regrets are never strong enough to overcome my conviction that Randy deserves the best job I can do, and that’s what I’m going to give him, no matter what the criticism.”

Kraft, 43, a computer consultant from Long Beach, was arrested May 14, 1983, after two California Highway Patrol officers found a dead Marine in the front passenger seat of his car. But the scope of his case goes far beyond the 16 murder charges he faces today.

Orange County prosecutors first accused him in court papers in 1984 of an additional 20 murders, including six in Oregon and two in Michigan. Then in 1985, they added another, and last year added eight more. These additional 29 murders could be used by prosecutors at a death penalty hearing if Kraft is found guilty of any of the murders for which he is on trial.

The courtroom styles of the two lawyers make them an incongruous pair.

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McDonald is the more ebullient. Aggressive, sometimes indignant, his voice grows louder when the judge or prosecutor angers him, and he often cross-examines witnesses with an air of controlled exasperation. One minute he is red-faced with frustration, the next his cheeks are colored by a hearty laugh.

Merwin never raises his voice, appears to take adverse rulings from the bench in stride and cross-examines like a surgeon, carefully dissecting a witness’s testimony.

The Kraft lawyers have been castigated throughout the county for numerous trial delays they have demanded and the public funds they have spent preparing for Kraft’s trial. The amount of money spent on the case has been kept secret by court order. What stings the two lawyers most is that even some of their colleagues in the legal community have questioned whether they’ve been diligent or dragging their feet to remain on the public payroll.

“No case should take this long to get to trial,” Deputy Dist. Atty. James P. Cloninger complained to the court at a 1987 hearing on another trial delay. “What have these guys been doing year after year?”

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That kind of criticism is echoed throughout the county, particularly among families of the young men listed in the charges against Kraft.

The father of one of them took off from work last week to attend a day of the trial, only to discover that the Kraft lawyers ran out of witnesses for the day by noon.

‘Used to Their Bull’

“I should be used to their bull by now,” the father said, shaking his head.

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Merwin says the criticism is difficult to take.

“I regret it (accepting the Kraft appointment) every time I read in the newspaper that I’m stealing county funds,” Merwin said.

In almost all homicide cases, a defendant’s lawyer is court appointed, meaning the county pays his salary and all the expenses related to the case. In capital cases, defendants are allowed two court-appointed lawyers.

In Kraft’s case, because so many murders are involved, Superior Court Judge Luis A. Cardenas, who did much of the pretrial work, appointed three. Merwin and McDonald are co-counsel, and William J. Kopeny, 38, was added primarily to handle pretrial motions. Now that the trial has begun, his role is limited.

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None of the three represented Kraft in the beginning.

At Kraft’s first arraignment in May, 1983, he was represented by Bruce C. Bridgman of Westminster and Douglas W. Otto of Long Beach, who had been hired by Kraft’s family. Bridgman, citing his busy law practice, bowed out quickly and was replaced by Frederick L. McBride.

McBride left the case in November, 1983, after a run-in with Kraft. Merwin replaced him 2 months later, but before Merwin could commit full time to the case, Otto also left in a dispute with Kraft.

Replacement Asked

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In August, 1984, Merwin asked Cardenas to appoint McDonald to replace Otto.

“Tom was the best I had ever seen at knowing how to organize a large investigation,” Merwin said last week. “And I knew that’s what this case would need.”

McDonald at the time was chief deputy public defender for the county, supervising a staff of more than 100. He and Merwin had become friends when Merwin worked there before starting his own practice years earlier.

McDonald wanted to take a leave of absence to represent Kraft. When county supervisors raised some objections, he quit his job. McDonald and Merwin then asked Cardenas to appoint Kopeny, who was head of writs and appeals in the public defender’s office. Kopeny left his county job too.

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McDonald said last week that “you can’t call yourself a criminal defense lawyer and turn down a case like this. It has all the elements to give you a chance to use whatever expertise you have in this field.”

Merwin said the decision to represent Kraft was easy for him.

“I have a policy--I take ‘em all,” he said. “I never turn down a case if a judge wants me and it will fit my schedule. Everyone deserves a lawyer.”

Opposed to Death Penalty

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All three Kraft attorneys have said their strong opposition to the death penalty also influenced them to take Kraft’s case.

Kraft appears to be satisfied with his lawyers. If he’s not, Cardenas has said, he should be.

“If Mr. Kraft is found guilty, it will not be because he did not have adequate representation,” Cardenas has said. “Merwin and McDonald may be two of the best defense lawyers in the state, if not the entire country.”

Deputy Dist. Atty. Bryan F. Brown, who is prosecuting Kraft, has said the same thing in court. But Brown and McDonald have clashed numerous times since McDonald has come on the Kraft case.

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In court last week, Brown accused McDonald of a “cowboy act” for trying to gain favorable rulings from the trial judge, Donald A. McCartin, by throwing up his hands and saying, “I’m just doing the best I can in my own clumsy way.”

McDonald isn’t clumsy, Brown told the judge; he knows exactly what he is doing. Some courtroom observers at the trial are astonished at McDonald’s daring in shouting his arguments to the judge.

But McDonald passes that off as insignificant, just his way of operating. “I thought I was pretty calm,” he said after one heated exchange. “I was assertive, that’s all.”

Not Popular With D.A.

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McDonald has never been popular with the district attorney’s office. In one sensational incident, McDonald was fired from a murder case by the judge because he refused to go forward after claiming that his client was not competent to stand trial. Brown happened to be the prosecutor in the case. McCartin, the Kraft trial judge, happened to be the one who fired McDonald.

McDonald still insists that he was in the right and could not have properly defended his client in any other way. But if McDonald’s style does not gain him friends among prosecutors, they at least respect his devotion to his clients.

Merwin, by contrast, is usually well liked by prosecutors.

“Jim is straightforward; he can calmly convince a jury he’s got the law on his side, even when he doesn’t,” one prosecutor said.

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Merwin and McDonald have different styles outside the courtroom too. For example, Merwin is somewhat guarded in his comments about Kraft. He said he likes Kraft and thinks some of the evidence against him is weak. McDonald is much more vibrant.

“It’s our contention that Randy did not commit any of these murders; I will not be satisfied with anything less than an outright acquittal,” McDonald once said.

The problem with the Kraft case, the defense lawyers say, is that the material is so vast--hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, and more than a thousand potential witnesses--it consumes them around the clock.

“I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning thinking about it,” McDonald said. In their private lives, McDonald and Merwin’s activities are family oriented. McDonald once said his idea of a good time is a ballgame with his two teen-agers and an ice cream later.

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Children Understand

“My kids are used to me working long hours; they have a good understanding of what we’re doing on this case,” he said.

Merwin said his three teen-agers from an earlier marriage have adjusted well considering that their father is now occasionally criticized in public, something that never happened in his previous cases.

“I think all my kids are interested in becoming lawyers,” Merwin says proudly.

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